Teens and Indecision: The Anxiety of Making a Choice
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
Development & Learning
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It’s a common scenario. A teen looks forward to some next step or accomplishment but when it comes time to actually seize the day he winds up dropping his dream like a hot potato. Or he holds it in his hand, tossing it back and forth, trying to decide if this is what he really wants.
As a parent, who may have something at stake too, in this choice to join the traveling team, major in physics, accept the college offer with the scholarship attached, or join the Navy, a child’s sudden waffling can be frustrating. Doesn’t your kid know his own mind?
Well, now that it comes to it, no. Or maybe yes. Or maybe yes and no.
Your teen is excruciatingly aware of the importance of her choices. This weight is something new and scary. When she was younger, events didn’t have the long-term repercussions they seem to have now. Decisions opened doors back then but now they seem to open some doors but also to close others. Your teen is worried about making a mistake she’ll regret. It’s easier not to choose.
Your teen is also worried about failure. What if he accepts the offer that leads to his dream, only to find he’s not really good enough? This next step puts him on an elite plane – just the fact that he won’t have time to dabble in other stuff tells him that. But what if he’s not really elite material? What if the major he’s chosen is too hard, the school is too demanding, or the competition performs at a level light years ahead of him? Maybe it’s better not to try.
When it comes right down to it, your teen may not be certain that this really is her dream. She has so many dreams. What if this isn’t the one? If following this path keeps her from trying out other paths, how far along the way should she go before she doubles back to try another route? Maybe the time to reconsider is now, at the fork in the road, before going any further.
It wasn’t always this way. In the past, young people’s paths were laid for them. Career choices were few and options for pursuing them fewer. One worked on the farm, or in the factory, or at sea just as Dad and Granddad did, or married and kept house just like Mom. Now that teens have an entire world’s worth of options and a head full of interests and desires, it’s not surprising that they find it difficult to pick just one.
But that’s the beauty of it: no one today needs to pick just one. A teen only needs to pick a first one. Few people today choose a career and stick with it for 50 years. According to the Wall Street Journal, only about 10% of U.S. workers stay with an employer 20 years or more. So the question is less, “What will I do when I grow up?” but “What will I do first as a grown-up?”
Your teen needs reminding of this – that today’s choice is not necessarily final. She can afford to make a decision, knowing that it’s not irrevocable. She can try it out and learn from it and grow into something else, if she decides to later.
And teens need reminding that it’s good not to limit oneself to a single dream only. The more talents and expertise one can apply to life, the richer and more exciting life will be. Flexibility and an open mind will carry your teen through the rough patches and give him a cushion to fall back on. Girls used to be advised to get a nursing degree or teaching certificate as a safety net “if something should happen” to the expected path of stay-at-home wife and mother. Nowadays everyone needs that safety net. For your teen the whole array of interests he has now are the resources he can tap in the future.
So at this moment, on the brink of a decision, or later, when the second-guessing starts, your teen needs permission to choose again. Not permission to dither – standing still is a choice that quite literally doesn’t go anywhere. But permission to make a second choice, and a third and even a fourth, someday down the road.
Only then is a first choice freely chosen. Only then does a first choice have any chance of success.
© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.